Anyone who bothers to remember his nightly peregrinations will assure you, even if he knows not why, that our dreams may prefigure our lives. More than occasionally we are stopped by reality's eerie coincidences, feelings of having experienced a particular moment at least once before, and odd bends and breaks in logic that seem reasonable to us because reason knows no greater bugbear than the megrims of the sleeping human mind. I often begin to write down pieces of my other existence, but my thoughts are betrayed by captions of waking notions. These are two separate lives, and when they begin to merge we may get something akin to the events of this story.
Our protagonist is Isaac Scatchard, a plain man of middling education and no luck in any field. Events have conspired time and again to relegate him to menial work that never pans out into a more permanent station, and while he is diligent and true, he always seems to be too late for the job. As might be expected of a man nearing the middle of life's generosity, he resides with his mother who makes a point of celebrating her son's birthday as if he were still a child. This whole setup is intended neither as farce nor an opportunity for psychobabble and mindless theories about the familial structure. Its distinct purpose is not to paint the picture of a soul howling in the caverns of the night to a God who has forsaken him, but of an average man who has little recourse but to accept his lot. Two days before his birthday, Isaac sets out on a day's journey for another possible job at a stable. Even before he takes a step in that direction, we know two things: the job will be gone when he arrives and his return home will be complicated by an obstacle, if true tragedy is meant, then a self-imposed one. Sure enough, after yet another disappointment in what is turning into a hideous pattern, Isaac makes inquiries and learns that "he might save a few miles on his return by following a new road." All good works of horror append a scene in which the character is allowed the option of retreat or of following sage and time-tested advice, advice he will invariably reject out of hubris or personal convenience, thus making him deserving of his gruesome fate. That Isaac seeks out an alternative to his long hike simply because he wishes to be home in time for his birthday meal can only bode poorly.
As it turns out, poorly would have been far more pleasant. Losing his way on this new road – the symbolism is blunt but appropriate – Isaac is obliged to spend the night as the solitary guest at a family inn. Usually an early sleeper, he stays up well past his normal hour; and when he retires to the humble guest room he notices "with surprise the strength of the bolts and bars, and iron-sheathed shutters." Why would any simple innkeeper have such an outlay in home protection? An explanation is given that cannot be true, but which suggests that our Isaac has, by his own will naturally, stepped into a realm of which he should want no part. What happens to him that night will not be revealed here; suffice it to say the sequence remains one of the most terrifying you will ever encounter in a text of this caliber. Isaac beats a hasty path homeward from these premises and soon enjoys what must be considered for him exceptionally good luck. This little streak lasts, we are told, seven years, and consists of steady work for one master and a "comfortable annuity bequeathed to him as a reward for saving his mistress's life in a carriage accident." If all this strikes you as more than a little curious, you will not be greatly astounded by what ensues shortly before another of Isaac's birthdays:
Mrs. Scatchard discovered that a bottle of tonic medicine which she was accustomed to take, and in which she had fancied that a dose or more was still left, happened to be empty. Isaac immediately volunteered to go to the chemist's and get it filled again. It was as rainy and bleak an autumn night as on the memorable past occasion when he lost his way and slept at the road-side inn. On going into the chemist's shop he was passed hurriedly by a poorly-dressed woman coming out of it. The glimpse he had of her face struck him, and he looked back after her as she descended the doorsteps. "You're noticing that woman?" said the chemist's apprentice behind the counter. "It's my opinion there's something wrong with her. She's been asking for laudanum to put to a bad tooth. Master's out for half an hour, and I told her I wasn't allowed to sell poison to strangers in his absence. She laughed in a queer way, and said she would come back in half an hour. If she expects master to serve her, I think she'll be disappointed. It's a case of suicide, sir, if ever there was one yet."
This fantastic passage precipitates yet another choice, namely to accost a woman who seems to have been on the verge of committing that most cardinal of Catholic sins. Although our poor Isaac has finally gained in luck and finances after almost four decades of hardscrabble denigration, he has yet to learn much about the fairer sex for his own purposes. That may account for, we suppose, his gallantry towards a wounded soul. And yet in an interview the woman reveals nothing that would require his intervention:
He asked if she was in any distress. She pointed to her torn shawl, her scanty dress, her crushed, dirty bonnet; then moved under a lamp so as to let the light fall on her stern, pale, but still most beautiful face. "I look like a comfortable, happy woman, don't I?" she said, with a bitter laugh. She spoke with a purity of intonation which Isaac had never heard before from other than ladies' lips. Her slightest actions seemed to have the easy, negligent grace of a thorough-bred woman. Her skin, for all its poverty-stricken paleness, was as delicate as if her life had been passed in the enjoyment of every social comfort that wealth can purchase. Even her small, finely-shaped hands, gloveless as they were, had not lost their whiteness.
Has Isaac found beauty pure and unblemished or something much more malevolent? Is it telling that the young woman, whose name is Rebecca Murdoch, asks Isaac to a meadow for their first private meeting? And what then of the editorial insert about "a man previously insensible to the influence of women" – and it is best to end our interrogation right here.
While the profundity of Collins's contributions to English literature could be questioned, his style and ability to enthrall are glorious. I fear that only his two most famous novels are read with any regularity, as much a testament to our unlearnedness as to the fleeting caress of literary enamourment. This much-adapted work concludes disappointingly because the evildoers are revealed somewhat too early along, and the value of this magnificent novel lies more in its innovation than its perspicacity. Nevertheless, the reading of even one of them should assure the student of literature that he is dealing with a heavyweight. What is particularly superb about The Dream Woman is how neither of the main characters' actions require any explanation or motive. Skeptics may claim that short stories necessarily predicate a single decision, gesture, or even a word, because there is little time for anything else. But in the hands of first-rate writers even short stories may make their ensembles live. And why then did our dream woman not bother to complete her sin? There is only one plausible reason, but I will leave that discovery to the curious among us who are still not afraid of turning on the light in the wee hours just to take a look around the room. Sometimes ignorance is both bliss and salvation.